Kenwood Academy High School senior Kennedy Scott started tossing around the football with her twin brother in 2021 when he was getting ready to play tackle football for Urban Prep Academy.
“I trained with him and then all of a sudden, my school had a flag football program. So I joined,” she said. Last Saturday Scott did her part as wide receiver for Kenwood’s girls’ flag football team, at a state championship tournament for four high school girls flag football teams at Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. For someone who played basketball in her freshman year, it’s now all about football.
Scott’s mother, Darlena James, said the switch happened at a time when wearing a mask in basketball was “very challenging” for her. Football played outside was a good outlet, James said. She was on the sidelines at Halas Hall cheering for No. 19 with her twin sister, Marlena James. The pair attend the majority of Scott’s games.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to play football, but they wouldn’t let girls play football,” Darlena James, an alumna of Robeson High School, said. “Now that she found interest, I said go for it.”
Darlena James said girls playing football is “a game-changer” and something that is “way overdue.”
The family, from Roseland, was among dozens of other families and loved ones who watched from the sidelines last weekend. The Chicago Bears and Bears Care partnered with Nike, Gatorade and Buffalo Wild Wings to host the first girls’ flag state championship, a tournament consisting of four games featuring Taft High School and Kenwood Academy from the Chicago Public League, Guilford High School from Rockford and Willowbrook High School from the West Suburban League.
What started with 22 teams in Chicago Public Schools as the Chicago Public League Girls Flag Football in 2021 has grown to 66 CPS teams. By 2022, the girls’ flag program expanded to the Rockford area, which created a league of six teams, and the west suburbs with another league of six teams in the Western Suburban Conference. According to Jim Geovanes, commissioner of the West Suburban conference, within two school years, the girls’ flag football program in Illinois has 78 teams. With an average of 30 girls on each team and money donated by brands and the Chicago Bears for equipment and uniforms, Geovanes said the sport is blowing up. The Western Conference was formed in May and within four months was competing in the state championship. (The Willowbrook Warriors won the state title and move on to the regionals in Ohio on Nov. 13.)
“Our hope going forward, is we can get it on IHSA’s radar,” he said. “We have 78 teams registered and by next year, it will be in the hundreds, easily. We have a sustainable product that is only growing in numbers. I don’t see how they could say no to girls’ flag football being a sanctioned sport.” Their goal is for girls’ flag football to be an IHSA sanctioned sport by 2024.
Willowbrook co-head coach Rachel Karos has been playing quarterback for a traveling flag football team for several years, and was excited about the sport coming to high schools girls.
“For a long time, a lot of people were like, ‘Girls don’t play football,’ and it’s now a sport for everybody. It’s really been awesome to see,” Karos said. She expects the momentum will continue given the increased attention on the sport nationally — there’s a push to get flag football into the Olympics by 2028 and the Pro Bowl this year will be a flag game. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics launched the first college sanctioned women’s flag football league in 2021.
Gustavo Silva, the Bears manager of youth football and community programs, said the team is putting money, resources and sweat equity behind girls’ flag programming. Envisioning leagues all over the state, Silva wants schools to reach out to him and area commissioners to be a part of the sport. He plans to have a winter meeting with anyone interested in launching a league in 2023. With a need and a desire for it, Silva hopes flag football opens up the entire football ecosystem to girls and women — more possibilities, roles and occupations.
“It is the goal of the Chicago Bears organization to continue to grow the sport of football by making it accessible, making it inclusive, and by making it equitable — girls flag football fits all three of those,” Silva said. “Our goal is that every opportunity that exists for a boy playing tackle football should exist for a girl playing flag football if she so chooses. We want to create that parallel and that’s why it is important that it does become a sanctioned varsity sport.”
Lamont Jones, Rockford Park District general manager of youth sports programs, community outreach and Clarence Hicks Memorial Sports Park and commissioner of Northern Illinois Girls Flag Football League, said the great thing about the sport is that everyone starts at the same level of training. In its first year, 140 girls signed up to be a part of the Rockford girls league. Jones was expecting 440 but said there were athletic directors who wanted to sit out this season and watch what unfolds before committing to be a part of a league.
“They thought it was just gonna be a fad, but this is the future … football is for everyone now; I think our numbers are showing that. The high school girls’ flag football program is the fastest-growing youth sports program that I’ve seen here in 20 years,” Jones said. “It’s a rocket ship. I don’t see a problem with the program growing in future years, especially next year. A lot of these girls that we have playing in our high school girls flag football program, are girls of color and this has helped build their confidence. They love this sport.”
Yanitta Rogers fell into flag football because she missed volleyball tryouts. An NFL fan, the Kenwood linebacker said once she participated, that was pretty much it for her. Karen Garland, Kenwood Academy’s athletic director, didn’t have any experience in flag football, but built a coaching staff that did. In the process, she’s developed a love for the game.
“I love seeing how this is taking off,” Garland said. “Since it’s our second year, we’ve gotten more students that have actually approached us as opposed to us seeking them out. Next year I plan to have a varsity and junior varsity team because we’ve gotten that much of an outpour of young ladies who wanted to try this year but we could only take on 25 players. We actually have one of the largest teams in CPS schools.”
Silva said a shorter game — two 20-minute halves and a five-minute halftime — is part of the appeal of flag football. Couple that with a smaller field than American football, and no tackling (participants wear a flag belt, and when a flag falls or is torn off by an opponent, the players are considered down by contact), and Geovanes said parents are on board with flag football for their children.
“The biggest part for me was seeing a very diverse population of young ladies getting involved and having fun in this sport,” he said. “This isn’t about football, this is about giving girls an opportunity they’ve never had before. To give our Black and brown students an opportunity to play a sport that they see on TV and see the boys play, and be receptive to it and be good at it, that’s the story.”